This is a picture of me and my son from a few years ago. Last week, it was his birthday. Halfway through his birthday morning, he was filled with disappointment and sadness and laid on his bed and told me about it.
His presents weren’t as he expected. He felt disappointed and wanted to take many of them back. He felt a bit lonely, especially as his siblings were in school and he was home without a playmate. His day didn’t feel sufficiently special and he felt a little unnoticed.
He was feeling that empty, hollow feeling that can come after anticipating something so greatly for so many months, only to feel let down, like a deflated balloon, once the much anticipated day is gone.
I did nothing but hold him and listen to him. He’s my fourth child, and I’ve had a lot of practice at this point. I didn’t try to talk him out of his feelings or try to get him to be positive or, even worse, make him feel selfish or ungrateful for being so unappreciative. (Of course I’ve done plenty of all of these things throughout my 18 years as a parent, and I have learned: it does not work.)
After a while, he went back to playing with his new toys. Forty five minutes later, while putting together his new lego set, I heard him say quietly to himself, “I love my birthday presents.”
I smiled to myself, because I saw that he was able to come around to the other side of his feelings, without any force on my part, without my making him “see the light” or rubbing his nose in it or redirecting.
And I felt proud because of the small part that I had played in the story, and I felt whole because the real me under my human conditioning had ventured forth to support him and be at his side, and I felt touched by the mystery of presence and how it moves and works and grows and expands and loves.
One of my teachers, Dr. Gordon Neufeld, says that the deepest love we can offer one another is “the invitation to exist in our presence.” When I first heard this phrase, it brought tears to my eyes, because I recognized how much I longed to extend this invitation – both to others and to the others within my own heart.
And I recognized how I often fail to offer and receive it.
It’s vulnerable to stand up for sadness: to declare that it’s okay to be unhappy. Our culture has so little room for sadness and disappointment, and there is so much pressure to be positive and upbeat.
If you carry a measure of sadness in your heart, as I do, this can make you feel like you don’t belong. Like there is no invitation for the whole of your being to exist. It’s a profound and lonely separation.
For much of my life, I’ve been ashamed of and afraid of sadness, in particular, for the sadness in my heart. And so I’ve been afraid of sadness in others, too. In response, I spent decades trying to self help my way to happiness – to find a way to eradicate this sadness.
I’ve tried to self help those around me into happiness, too, because I also believed I was responsible for their happiness: for my children’s. For my own. For my husband’s. For every person I touched. I was like a cruise ship director, hustling about, sweating over every detail trying to make everything just so, just right.
So there was no room – no invitation – for their unhappiness or disappointment or sadness either.
Like yeast working its way through dough, life’s pain has slowly transformed my heart and released this burden to make things happen and make things right and make things happy. There’s a greater freedom now – to feel unhappy, disappointed, frustrated – an invitation for the full width and breadth of our humanity – that, ironically, has brought the peace I sought in happiness.
In making room for my son’s experience, I also had to make room for mine: to accept and allow the feelings of disappointment and frustration that arose in me when I realized his birthday – the birthday I had spent considerable time and effort trying to make special – wasn’t meeting his expectations or creating the happy memories that I desired.
Like my son, when I made room for my emotions, they moved on their own accord. Through mystery, through grace, I was able to let go of my own desire to control and my desire for him to be happy and to let my disappointment rest in the ocean of awareness.
What I most wanted was connection, and I could find connection both in my son’s joy and in his disappointment, in just being with him. When I hold this yearning in my hands, I’m able to come around to the other side and feel the invitation, both for me and for him. As I held my son in his tears, I recognized: This birthday is enough. He is enough. I am enough. The disappointment and let down is enough. It is okay.
As Ruth Moody sings, “We are still whole.”
There is a place within us, deep within the heart, that arises from our soul. It is our life force, and it exists in you and me, as it also exists in every living thing.
It is this force – this grace – that moves us, that grows us, that stretches us, that transforms us: that changes our thoughts and emotions and minds and hearts. It’s what moved in the heart of my son and moved him from disappointment to contentment. And it’s what moved him to contentment within the whole – within the mix of sorrow and disappointment and joy and celebration that is life.
The beauty I have learned, is that this life force is not in my hands, but rests in something greater, and it is not something I have to direct or flow or force. It is merely something I open to, and allow to move through me, like a channel, like water running clear in a stream.
When I sat with my son that morning in his unhappiness, I didn’t do anything. I didn’t try to persuade him of anything. I just sat with him. I simply met him where he was and made room for his experience and offered that invitation to show up, as is.
Philosopher and writer Beatrice Bruteau says it like this:
We cannot require people to love one another, and trying to coerce them to act as if they did does not work satisfactorily, for it seems to breed the very hostilities it sets out to contain. We have resorted to exhortation, persuasion, enticement, encouragement. But these methods have not been very successful, either.
So let us try understanding. Perhaps if we can clearly grasp with our intelligent consciousness what kind of being we profoundly are and something of what we may become, we will be able to experience that miraculous shift, that metanoia, that turns the world inside out.”
As poet Judyth Hill says, we “make peace with our listening.” The miraculous shift that turns the world inside out is the shift that occurs when we simply make room, when we offer the invitation. When we allow what is here to arise and to simply have space to exist, to move with the ebb and flow of the river of life.
When I try to force my son to love something he does not love, to feel a happiness he does not feel, to feel a gratitude he does not have, I do not make space for him to exist. It is a subtle violence to his heart and soul. He may do a song and dance to keep me close, to keep my love; he may start to shut down parts of himself so that he can exist. But, oh, oh – the price. At what cost?
We do this same violence to ourselves, and to each other. And we, too, start to shut down parts of ourselves so we can exist in the light of our own and each other’s love. And we, too, feel the price, and the cost.
To paraphrase Mary Oliver, “life calls to us each day, offering us an invitation,” a lap that is as large as the world, a wholeness that contains everything. There is room for you here, it says – room for all of you. It is a vast and profound mercy. It is big enough to hold all our emotions, thoughts, selves, experiences, and feelings. Like a well worn living room – where you feel comfortable getting the rug dirty and putting your feet up on the table – we find rest in this hospitality.
This is a line from the song, “These Wilder Things,” from the exquisite Ruth Moody:
And I will waste my heart on fear no more
I will find a secret bell and make it ring
And let the rest be washed up on the shore
They can’t be tamed, these wilder things
No they can’t be tamed, these wilder things
Come, let us make room for the wilder things within our lives, and within the lives of those we love. Come, let us “waste our hearts on fear no more,” as John O’ Donohue originally wrote it. Come, let us open to and find rest in the invitation.
Oh goodness the perfect timing of this! I had come back at the end of my rather unproductive day and literally sank down onto the carpet with a cup of tea and leaned back with closed eyes just SO SO deeply exhausted. I was then proceeding to try and be the loving parent to the myriad of young worried parts still trying to perform their way to love, none of which felt even remotely authentic. Still with eyes closed I tried to listen for my core which was firmly hiding, but just felt worried, worried about being exhausted, stuck, ‘absent’ from my own existence. Worried about not making more of a contribution to bettering the world and not being more grateful and appreciative. At that moment I decided to check facebook and for once this was the right decision. I smiled as I read your post and remembered writing in my diary on my tenth birthday ‘I’m so lucky to have such lovely parents who buy me such lovely things and I’m so ungrateful and such a bad daughter to feel sad and angry’!!! I remember so well shoving down all the painful feelings to try and bring some joy to my home, to ‘fix it’, to squelch any sadness or pain. As I read about your interaction with your son I felt that young part stir inside that just needed someone to have been there and said, its okay, feeling this is okay, its not bad…you can be in this, its not all of you, or bigger than you. I recognised that young part ‘stuck in alpha’ that needed to lay the burden of being ‘good’ down and be caught in the flow of a bigger love and goodness. To be invited to exist. Thank you Karly for offering the invitation to every part, for sounding the call to make space to be, to exist. Love Pauline
I love synchronicity: it’s like a wink from the Divine, reminding us that we are never alone, and reminding us that our yearnings do not go unheard. I’m so glad that this was just what you needed, when you needed it.
What a powerful story about your 10th birthday. Wow. (And how interesting that I felt led to write about my son’s birthday!!) It makes a lot of sense how you came to feel ashamed of and edited these parts of yourself: children can only express that which has an invitation. And it doesn’t sound like there was room for these feelings, someone to witness and normalize them….
So offering this invitation to yourself now – an invitation for all of you – is so profoundly healing. I hope that reading the story of my son gave your inner parts an invitation, and that this invitation was healing to you, and welcoming, and brought you room to be.
You don’t have to be anything other than you are. You are welcome – all of you – and invited here.
In love and care, Karly
Thank you for sharing this wisdom and love. What balm to my soul.
I’m so glad, Lori, that it soothed you. Love, Karly
You are so spot on when you say, “Our culture has so little room for sadness and disappointment, and there is so much pressure to be positive and upbeat…this can make you feel like you don’t belong. Like there is no invitation for the whole of your being to exist. It’s a profound and lonely separation. ”
Thank you for articulating what I’ve experienced for many years. I’ve wrestled with depression for quite some time, but largely kept this struggle private out of fear that I’ll be seen by others as ungrateful, small-minded, self-centered, or just plain negative.
Plus, the well meaning “cheer up, look on the bright side” tactics others try are ineffective against the deep, tangled roots of chronic major depression. This frustrates people, and they push the struggle (and therefore me) away.
Thank you for sharing this story about your son and for proposing an alternative to fighting, working, struggling, acting, managing emotions all the time. I hope I can someday experience the peace you describe.
I’m glad that I could put words to your experience. It’s my hope that this helps you feel less alone and reaffirms that you, do, indeed belong.
You also articulated some of my own experiences with depression. I’ve experienced what you describe here – “Plus, the well meaning “cheer up, look on the bright side” tactics others try are ineffective against the deep, tangled roots of chronic major depression. This frustrates people, and they push the struggle (and therefore me) away.”
Yes. I now see that the frustration and helplessness of my friends and loved ones – their powerlessness to move the depression and powerlessness to fix it for me – can sometimes come out sideways at me, in either aggression or avoidance. Of course, when you’re in the thick of a depressive episode I often don’t have the clarity or energy to see this, and these interactions can feel more personal, confusing and hurtful.
Thank you for sharing your story and for allowing me to know you better, and to understand your journey, what life is like for you. I feel touched by this incredible opportunity.
Thank you Karly 🙂
This is just so beautiful. I would love to share it. How can I do that?
I’m so glad it nourished you, Jule. (What a lovely name!)
You are welcome to share it with whomever you like – simply please credit me as the author and include a link to https://growinghumankindness.com.
I’m hoping to do lots more writing for 2015.
Love and joy, Karly
This is such an important message to share – thanks Karly! You have no idea how important your message was to me!
How fun to see you here. I’m so glad that this message resonated with you and gave you just what you were needing. I longed and needed to hear it too 🙂
I love your posts!
Jessica, I’m so glad that they speak to you!
This touched such a deep, deep place in my heart. Thank you wonderful Karly for being such a soul sister to so many of us. Being okay with my sadness has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve received. Took me almost 50 years to find it, but oh so grateful to be here now.
I think the fear of sadness is the same as the fear of age. Both are very prevalent in our culture.
LOVE the Ruth Moody song! Thanks for introducing me to her gorgeous voice!
I had a hunch you would like Ruth Moody. She is 1/3 of The Wailin’ Jennys, who I have a hunch you’ll also like: http://www.thewailinjennys.com
The Jennys are one of my favorite musical groups.
I think you’re right – the fear of sadness and the fear of ageing are both similar, a deep fear of the dark and the unknown … I think we fear them because in our culture we can experience separation – a lack of belonging – both as we age and when we are feeling sad. My mom said to me the other day, “There isn’t a place in the culture for me anymore.” Separation. And so we try to stop them or control them and suppress them because this separation is so painful….
In my own struggles with depression I’ve had two times in my life when I longed for oblivion, and was suicidal. What was most painful about these experiences was not the depression or even the despair, but the separation I faced: when people couldn’t simply be with me in my sorrow or despair, and tried to change, fix me or offer platitudes that only made me feel lonelier. And, I also see that this was the only way they knew how to support me…
I feel so grateful that you are okay with the sadness that can arise in you. What a gift to give your own heart.
Much love, Karly
Wow. You did it again. It was this part, right here:
“When I try to force my son to love something he does not love, to feel a happiness he does not feel, to feel a gratitude he does not have, I do not make space for him to exist. It is a subtle violence to his heart and soul. He may do a song and dance to keep me close, to keep my love; he may start to shut down parts of himself so that he can exist. But, oh, oh – the price. At what cost?
“We do this same violence to ourselves, and to each other. And we, too, start to shut down parts of ourselves so we can exist in the light of our own and each other’s love. And we, too, feel the price, and the cost.”
Thanks for once again helping me identify something within myself that has yearned for so long to be acknowledged and understood. It was that “denial of space to exist” as a child that I’ve tried so diligently as a parent to not repeat with my own children. Funny thing; I’ve succeeded quite well in giving them that gift, yet have somehow managed to still not make space for myself to exist as an adult. And I can see now the subtle violence I’ve perpetuated upon my own heart and soul, and the cost of feeling like I’m not sure who the hell I am or what I really want in life.
Just reading this message opens up a space inside of me that never existed before. Thank you. You are an angel in my life!
I’m so glad that this post resonated with you, and spoke to a deep truth in your heart – both in the invitation that you’ve given your own dear children and the grief you feel that you didn’t receive this same understanding when you were tender and young.
I think giving ourselves that invitation is our life’s work, and is something we’ll be doing for the rest of our lives. Not as in, “I have to work, work work at this and this will never be done,” but rather, as a nod to our human tenderness and vulnerability – to recognize that there are so many interior rooms and places and selves and parts of ourselves that are longing for an invitation and for expression. When they arise, it’s not proof of failure on our part – I can feel ashamed of both my messy humanity and my lack of an invitation for it – but a chance to stretch and to open our hearts.
I, too, can have moments when I don’t know who the hell I am. And I have moments when very clearly I do. It’s almost like having different people inside – which me is showing up today?! Who’s here? I can panic when the “who the hell am I?” part appears. Slowly, I’ve learned not to make these moments wrong either, and to not take them personally.
To make space for even when I don’t want to make space.
You may like this quote that, for a long time, was on the growing humankindness home page: “The greatest thing in the world is to know how to belong to yourself.” – Montaigne
Much love, Karly
There just could not be a more beautiful and truth-filled post…every word of this is amazing.
I am so glad that this nourished your heart and spoke to you! Thank you for taking the time to write. Love, Karly